Action against terrorism: Tony Blair reveals more than he realises
In his exchanges with Michael Howard, the Leader of the Opposition, on 2 February, Tony Blair inadvertently revealed more about himself than he can have intended.
They were discussing what to do about people in Britain suspected of involvement in terrorism but whom the security service doesn’t want to prosecute because the evidence needed for a conviction might compromise its sources, and the law lords have condemned the present law permitting the home secretary to put non-nationals whom he can’t deport in prison indefinitely without trial. The new home secretary has announced proposals for putting suspects like these, this time including British citizens, under house arrest instead, prompting strenuous objections in the media and in parliament from pinko liberals like me, but also now from those like the Daily Telegraph who weren’t much bothered about what was happening to a bunch of foreigners banged up in Belmarsh prison, but who have abruptly awoken from their dreamless sleep now that it’s proposed to treat British citizens inmuch the same way.
It’s reasonable to assume that Charles Clarke, the home secretary, would not have ventured to publish his controversial and draconian proposals without extensive scrutiny and discussion beforehand with the prime minister and other Cabinet colleagues. Yet Tony Blair, understandably uncomfortable with the reception that the Clarke proposals have been getting, already begins to try to distance himself from them by pretending that he hasn’t really had time to look at them properly:
“I have not had an opportunity to study those proposals in detail, but I should say that it is our intention to have a judicial process.”
Who does he think he’s kidding? This looks uncannily like a chilling warning to the home secretary that already the prime minister is preparing to pull the rug from under his policeman’s boots.
But there’s worse, and more bizarre, to come. There are many moderately respectable, or at any rate arguable, reasons that the government could put forward for its wish partially to override our traditional liberties in order to fulfil its responsibility for ensuring the security of the population in the face of the terrorist threat. But Mr Blair chooses to advance a different motive altogether:
‘We are desperate to avoid a situation in which, later, people turn round and say, "If only you’d been as vigilant as you should have been we could have averted a terrorist attack." ‘
So it’s not mainly his duty and responsibility for security, or his obligation to do the right thing, that drive him, but the desire to cover his back: he is ‘desperate’ (desperate!) not to lay himself open to criticism if the worst comes to the worst and there’s a terrorist attack, as some doomy policemen tell us is inevitably going to happen sooner or later whatever precautions have been taken to prevent it.
Actually, perhaps Mr Blair really hasn’t had time, or bothered, to ‘study those proposals in detail’ or to discuss them properly with his home secretary colleague: asked to describe the nature of the problem requiring such a draconian solution, he says:
“The difficulty will arise over the use of intercept evidence in court, and the question, if the security services are obliged to produce that evidence in court, will be whether they feel that they cannot do that without compromising intelligence sources. That is the problem that we have tried to wrestle with for the past few years.”
But Home Office studies and comments from those well placed to know have repeatedly indicated that “the use of intercept evidence in court” is only a minor aspect of the real problem, namely the virtual impossibility of disclosing to a terrorist suspect in open court evidence which may enable him to identify the secret informer who supplied the information, thus endangering not only the informer himself, but (even worse) the ability of the security services to recruit or infiltrate informers in the future, thus potentially depriving them of their most important tool in the effort to detect and pre-empt terrorist attack. Yielding to the widespread clamour for intercept evidence to be made admissible in the criminal courts, as ministers are now beginning to show signs of planning to do, will make very little difference to the numbers of suspects who can be charged and tried, instead of being detained on the say-so of a politician: it certainly won’t solve the central problem of protecting informers. Yet Mr Blair claims that the main difficulty arises over intercept evidence. Are we to take it from this that he genuinely doesn’t know any better, and (uncharacteristically) hasn’t done his homework? Or could it be that the intercept evidence issue is a conveniently smelly red herring designed to send the hounds off in the wrong direction, while the real fox laughs all the way back to its hole? No wonder the prime minister was so reluctant to get on with a ban on hunting.
(Quotations from the prime minister’s statements in parliament are from the Hansard of the House of Commons on 2 Feb 2005, Column 831.)